Failing the challenge of the Great War

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

FICTION: Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre, 520pp, £18.99

The Australian Thomas Keneally is a writer whose name is always accompanied by the words “prolific” and “prize-winning”. Author of 26 novels, most of them historical fiction, he is best known for Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize and was transformed into the equally award-winning Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.

Keneally, a committed Australian nationalist whose work favours heroic actions and the ordinary people who undertake them, finds inspiration in untamed worlds. Aboriginal Australia and 19th-century America feature, but he is best known for stories of war. Daughters of Mars partakes of the recent interest in Great War fiction, following Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. Keneally’s most recent war novel also emerges from the noncombatant strain running from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in which women nurse the victims of conflict. The dust jacket of the UK edition is resplendent with poppies.

The daughters of the title are sisters Sally and Naomi Durance, and their story was inspired by the journals of Australian nurses who served in both the Dardanelles and on the Western Front, places the Durance sisters travel to on the hospital ship Archimedes. The farmer’s daughters are not natural allies: the younger, Sally (from whose perspective the story is told), is compliant, whereas her striking elder sister is assertive.

After nursing their mother through her final cancer, the girls answer a government call for military nurses and embark on new lives, bound together by a dark family secret.

Keneally’s strengths include his ability to choose a major event worthy of a sweeping historical novel. Along the way he provides a detailed, emotional reading of the zeitgeist of the place and time. Relying on formulaic combinations, the author fashions characters who exhibit a high degree of pluckiness. Sally and Naomi are thus typical, although Daughters of Mars is a rare female-centred novel in Keneally’s corpus.

We follow the journey these young Australians undertook, still unaccustomed to their new uniforms, and in new roles as elite officer medics, abused soldier orderlies or hastily recruited nurses on a steep learning curve. Travel itself is novel to youth whose ambit has previously been confined to small rural towns or the bush country and for whom a steamer to Melbourne represents the outer reach of their experience and imagination.

The author captures the dynamic of throwing young men and women together on board ship, far from the strictures of family and community, while keeping the degree of interaction credible within its historical context. Similarly, he re-creates their wide-eyed reaction to completely new cultural experience, as the young nurses make their way through the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

Having once again chosen such a large canvas, and one explored brilliantly in recent years by other writers, Keneally proves, finally, unable to mould sufficiently memorable individual characters who can sustain his aims.

Officers come and go; nurses, though not identical, are all heroic and unselfish. One exception is Kiernan, an Irish-Australian Quaker orderly, who provides the young women with history lessons on their ports of call, evoking Homer time and again as their ship encounters places famed in his work. However, efforts to provide insight into the variety of regional and social distinctions in Australian society in the era are either abandoned after being introduced or repeated rather than being developed with subtlety or in depth. It is an opportunity missed, as there is a tendency among non-Australian anglophone readers to consider that such a relatively new country produced the single national type familiar in fiction and on film.

Nor is Keneally entirely up to the challenge of re-creating the way young women speak, or spoke, among themselves, and how they evaluated the young men they encountered. Passages on female physical intimacy at close quarters become at times nearly prurient. Language dealing with physical characteristics – build, facial features and other details – can sound cribbed from their course notes in anatomy. The minutiae of medical procedure could be said to mirror well the tedium of the repeated, and often hopeless, ministrations needed by thousands of injured men, but the sheer accumulation of amputations, gaping chest wounds, pus-filled bandages and bodily fluids will have a deadening effect on many readers.

Those who are more attuned to the fictional requirements of such books, rather than the retelling of historical events, will chafe against Keneally’s prose style and methods of exposition. His previous work has been accused, politely, of having been written in haste. Speed may not be the only problem. Those used to the grace and facility of writers of historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel or Peter Carey will find Daughters of Mars wanting. The dark family secret is given a distorted reading, and is melodramatically repeated now and again, often as an afterthought at the end of paragraphs in which Sally thinks about her sister’s behaviour past and present. The writer seems also at a loss to bring his story to a satisfactory close.

Daughters of Mars contains within it a great story of genuine heroism.Those with a particular interest in the period will no doubt find much here of interest. The rest of us may just wish Keneally were a more nuanced writer who could do it justice.